In the spring of 2003, 23-year-old peace activist Rachel Corrie left Olympia, Washington, for Rafah, a community in the Gaza Strip, to join the International Solidarity Movement in supporting Palestinian non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation. At the time, ISM’s “direct action” strategy included physically positioning foreign volunteers between Israeli Defense Forces bulldozers and Palestinian homes slated for demolition to make room for a security wall along Rafah’s border with Egypt. On March 16, 2003, while demonstrating before a Palestinian pharmacist’s home, Rachel was crushed by a bulldozer.
ISM’s critics painted Rachel as a young, misguided radical, comparable to the “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh. ISM supporters held her as a martyr and a symbol of Israel’s violent and oppressive policy in the Palestinian territories. Transcending the controversy over her death, and its political appropriation, is the simple truth that Rachel was a young woman, with parents who loved her.
This weekend, the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center present three events with Rachel’s parents, Cindy and Craig Corrie, including “A Platica With Families Who Have Lost Loved Ones to Political Violence” on Saturday.
Were you aware at the time of the intensity of the activism that goes on with the International Solidarity Movement?
Cindy Corrie: We were worried. She directed me to some websites and I remember her saying, “I’m afraid this one might scare you” and she didn’t want to scare us. It wasn’t that we weren’t aware of some of the work ISM was doing and the ways they approached it. I actually did go to the web for a little while to see if there were some other alternatives. We have connections with people in India and I thought well, maybe there’d be some program where she could do some good work. I think I even suggested some options. What I didn’t realize at the time is all connections she’d had with people in Olympia who were very much focused on the Middle East and what was happening in Israel and Palestine. So of course she wasn’t going to be diverted to something in India. Her connection to it all was much broader than just, you know, pick out a place and go do something.
Craig Corrie: The day before Rachel left Olympia, I called her and I told her, “You know, Rachel, you don’t have to do this. You don’t have to go. Nobody would be angry with you if you didn’t go.” And she said, “I know, but I think I can do this and I know I have to try.” In the end you can’t ask your child to be something less than what she can be.
It was pretty clear the U.S. was about to invade Iraq at the time `she went` and there were all sorts of stories of kidnappings and the idea that Palestinian extremist groups would be supporting Iraq. Was this part of your concern?
Cindy: I was concerned about her being there if war broke out in Iraq because of the unpredictability of it, not because of any fear about what would happen with the Palestinians. But Rachel really had chosen that time to go partially because of her work opposing the Iraq war. I did write to her and say “Have you thought about coming home?” and I think I said something like, “I know you probably don’t want to do that, but you’ve already done a lot of good work.” And she said she was going to stay on.
Craig: I think the main problem, and the problem Rachel was worried about, was that if the United States and the world was paying attention to Iraq, there might be a full-scale military occupation in Gaza, and it could get a lot worse in Gaza. I don’t think that happened as immediately as Rachel was worried about in those first weeks, but by the spring of 2004, that is what happened.
Did you end up going to Gaza to bring her home `after her death`?
Craig: No. I remember talking to a person at the U.S. Embassy and them saying, “I don’t know what you heard but you can’t come here.” That sort of ticked me off. Then, that was reiterated by Rachel’s congressman `Representative Brian Baird`, who started to help us that Sunday evening. He said he didn’t know any more than we did, really, but near as he could tell, the war was breaking out. He thought if we tried to go to Rafah and bring Rachel’s body back, the war could be broken out, borders could be closed, and we might never get in, we might get in and not get out, and it would be possible that Rachel’s body would never come home.
So, what ended up happening?
Craig: We asked one of Rachel’s friends, Will, to stay with her body and get it back to Tel Aviv, and the Embassy would make arrangements to get her body shipped back to the United States. That Monday was pretty hectic, trying to get Rachel’s body to a checkpoint. I was on the phone with Will, who was with Rachel, my son Chris was on the phone with Congressman Baird’s chief of staff, Congressman Baird was on the phone back to our Embassy in Tel Aviv, and I think they may have been on the phone with the IDF. There was this tree going on around the world. Eventually we told them to give up and see if they could get Rachel back refrigerated. Then we heard 10 minutes later that they’d been allowed through the checkpoint and she was taken to Tel Aviv that night.
A lot has come out in the U.S. media in the last year or so about targeting by U.S. spy agencies against U.S. citizens who’ve been engaged in these sort of activities. Were you ever concerned about what the U.S. government reaction would be to her activism or your own?
Cindy: We have to assume that there are people out there watching what ISMers are doing, maybe watching what Craig and I are doing. I have no idea, but I know what I’m doing, I know why we’re doing what we’re doing and why we feel it’s important. So I don’t really have a lot of fear about that and I really felt that way about Rachel as well.
`Do you give` any sort of credence to the criticism that this focus by certain peace and justice centers on Israel and Palestine draws away from other injustices going on in other regions?
Craig: I think the groups have a right and probably an obligation to focus in areas that they think they can be most effective. I think there’s a particular reason for the United States to be paying attention to Israel and Palestine because of our massive support. We should be supporting Israel, we need to support the existence of Israel. What we don’t need to support is Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian land. If people in Palestine find a piece of the rockets that are fired they’ll say “Made in the USA.” We’re a part of that particular war because of the financing we do of Israel. We focus on this issue because that’s the issue we have been drawn to.
The Life and Work of Rachel Corrie: Related Events
AN EVENING WITH CINDY & CRAIG CORRIE
The parents of Rachel Corrie will speak about their daughter’s work, the lingering questions about her death, and their own experiences in the Palestinian territories. 933 San Pedro. 7pm Fri. Free. Donations accepted. Esperanzacenter.org or 228-0201.
A PLATICA WITH FAMILIES WHO HAVE LOST LOVED ONES TO POLITICAL VIOLENCE
Carlos Luis Arredondo, whose son was recently killed while serving in the U.S. military in the Iraq war, and Kyle Qubrosi, who witnessed his father’s murder in Israel, will join the Corrie family in a discussion about coping with loss and striving for peace. 922 San Pedro. 7pm Sat. Free. Donations accepted. Esperanzacenter.org or 228-0201.
CLASS OF NONVIOLENCE AT THE PEACECENTER
On the eve of Gandhi’s 137th birthday, join in this discussion about the classics in peace-and-justice literature. The Corrie family will participate in this class. 1443 S. Saint Mary’s St. 2-4pm Sun. Free. Donations accepted. Salsa.net/peace/conv/hs8weekconv2.html or 224-Hope (4673).